Sep 02 2013
If you’re travelling overland from Bira to Rantepao in Sulawesi, the beautiful Tempe Lake at Sangkeng makes for the perfect spot to break up the journey. The town is right on the rim of the lake and it’s easy to arrange a boat to explore. We’d heard about the lake via the guesthouse we stayed at in Bira, and have to admit we were a bit ho hum on the prospect of an early morning boat trip, but then arriving at the outskirts of town as the light faded, we got a glimpse of its beauty.
Our boatmen met us at our hotel early in the morning and it was just a 10-minute walk from there down to the river’s edge where his longtail was parked. It even had life jackets! The river is one of many connecting to the lake, and after pulling up at a small floating ticket office, where I paid the 5,000 rupiah admission fee (kids free), we were off.
According to our guide, the lake’s depth varies tremendously depending on the season and can reach up to 10 metres — when we visited, it was vast and marshy. At the far side of the lake (from Sangkeng) there’s a floating village of a few dozen houses, so we headed over that way to explore. You’re best to do this boat trip in the early morning or late afternoon as that’s when the birdlife is most active — we saw loads.
Often the birds are feeding in these vast fields of “green stuff” (sorry, the technical term escapes me), which the locals farm in enormous floating farms. We’d be motoring past and suddenly a great stork, startled by the boat engine, would soar aloft right in front of us. There were birds everywhere.
The farmers erect large bamboo triangles to keep the green stuff under control and to stop it from taking over the entire surface of the lake. Every now and then though, the driver would decide to take a short-cut, gun the engine and we’d zoom straight through it.
It took us about 45 minutes to reach the village, comprised of a dozen or so floating houses, some tied to a fabulous tree. At the edge were some stilted houses, but you could pick the floating ones by their long anchor rope holding them in place. As the water level fluctuates the houses move around, both to stay afloat and to follow the fish. While we chose not to look inside a house (we could have if we wanted) even from the exterior they were pretty interesting, with everything, (including live chickens) that one would need should you need to float away. It reminded me of the floating and stilted villages you can see on the edge of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia.
Also reminiscent of Cambodia were the beautiful sugarpalms that dotted the surface of the lake. Like the reedy green stuff floating on the surface, these too were home to plenty of birdlife.
After the floating village we about turned and headed back to Sangkeng. This time, as we approached the town, the boatman took us a different route, first over the local football field to illustrate how much the water level varies, and then onwards down what, in dry season, is a footpath between stilted houses.
The trip all up took around two hours, though keen birdwatchers would probably want to start earlier and spend longer on the lake than we did. The trip cost 120,000 rupiah (petrol prices had just gone up in Indonesia, so it’s possibly a few thousand more now). The boatman spoke good English and was very informative — we wish we’d asked him what the green stuff is called. Simply ask at your hotel (we recommend the Eka Hotel) to arrange a trip.
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